Dear reader, what follows is a two-part review of two books, longer than my usual posts. The two sections are separated by asterisks, so you may want to save the second half for another reading.
The American author Flannery O’Connor wrote haunting, disturbing and technically brilliant work during her short, but productive life. She died of lupus in 1964, aged 39, leaving behind several books of short stories and essays, and two novels: Wise Blood, published in 1952 and The Violent Bear It Away, which appeared ten years later. I’ve never read anything quite like this pair of dark yet often comic riffs on the great themes of salvation and redemption. (I should mention that I share with O’Connor both Roman Catholicism and an interest in theology, although by her orthodox standards, I’m probably a heretic). Yet whatever one’s religious views (or lack of them), our perspective on O’Connor today is bound to be shaped by the violent religious fundamentalism that we’ve experienced in our time. Read in that light, the novels speak even more brilliantly, and without a hint of didacticism. They are deep and multifaceted works that will no doubt disturb us in ways that their author never intended.
Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Motes, a Tennessee man released from the army in 1945 who ends up in a nameless southern town where he enounters Asa Hawks, an allegedly blind street preacher and his strange daughter, Sabbath Lily Hawks. The encounter infuriates Hazel, who decides to found his own religion by preaching “The Church Without Christ” where “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” In a pointed dig at a key American myth, Hazel buys a wreck of a “rat-colored” car, lives in it and sees it as his church. “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified,” he quips in one of the book’s many memorable lines. Yet his rage at the phony preachers of sin and salvation is the flip-side of his own attempts to shake these obsessions in himself. He’s a believer who believes in nothing, and when he acts on this non-belief, the results are catastrophic, going far beyond the worst practices of religion. Yet the beauty of the writing itself asks us to examine what spiritual depth might mean, and if Hazel’s frightening asceticism is madness or grace.
It’s often observed that Flannery O’Connor’s characters are grotesque and unlikeable. I would argue that we live in an airbrushed, deodorized society, that what appears to be universal ugliness is, in fact, a profound statement about the chaos of the human condition. She portrays a world of lost souls, none of whom she ridicules, all of whom she brings to life with humour and compassion. Wise Blood is not for the faint of heart, but it’s blessedly free of political correctness and alive with truth.
While both novels are compelling and readable, The Violent Bear it Away is the more developed and fully realized in its plotting and characterisation. In both novels, O’Connor makes skillful use of a multiple point of view — not chapters narrated by different characters, but a continuous flow of voices from paragraph to paragraph, moving us in and out of the heads of various characters. Rather than fragmenting either novel, this technique serves to let the voices to converge around larger themes.
In The Violent Bear it Away, we meet young Francis Marion Tarwater, orphaned and raised by his now-dead great-uncle, a self-styled prophet out to groom his nephew for the same calling. Upon the uncle’s death, young Tarwater escapes to the home of his cousin Rayber, a secular man and a teacher who also evaded his uncle’s clutches and who is now convinced that reason, psychology and good education are all that’s needed to overcome the pernicious effects of the mad, prophetic uncle. Yet Rayber the teacher has a mentally disabled son, Bishop, and the lad repels young Tarwater, who’s tormented by the voice he despises — his late uncle telling him that he must baptize the child.
Readers aware of the evils of child abuse and religious fanaticism will reject the idea that the young man should follow a false prophet’s call. Yet Flannery O’Connor had little use for what the secular teacher Rayber represented in his bland belief that reason could conquer evil; she shows him as deaf to a deeper level of truth, symbolized by his real deafness, albeit from a gunshot wound at the hands of the crazy old prophet. Many critics argue that O’Connor as a devout Catholic might have seen the extreme sufferings of young Tarwater as a moment of grace inspiring him to a true prophetic call. In my view, a twenty-first century reader — Catholic or not — could not in conscience talk about God at work in the abuse and trauma that this young man endured. Yet it’s a testament to the beauty and wholeness of O’Connor’s writing that while we understand the horrors that have scarred young Tarwater, we also sense a profound mystery at the heart of the human condition.
Flannery O’Connor was a truth-teller who treated her readers as adults, who left us to ponder troubling questions, all of them laced with a dose of wicked humour. These two stunning and readable novels are more than worth your attention.
Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away are both published by Farrar Strauss and Giroux.